Who Put the Cat-Flap in the Submarine?

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I read with interest Ron’s recent post on Janet and John Talk Business. I think this is a fascinating topic and it inspired me to share a story. This is a mythical story about a business, their IT function and a new IT system to support a business change. It’s a little longer than a […]

I read with interest Ron’s recent post on Janet and John Talk Business. I think this is a fascinating topic and it inspired me to share a story. This is a mythical story about a business, their IT function and a new IT system to support a business change.
It’s a little longer than a usual blog entry but I hope you’ll find the story an interesting read – especially in the context of the IS and IT trends we’ve been exploring recently on the blog, and especially with regard to Ron’s recent post.
The business in our story was doing well in its market, and while there was the usual business dissatisfaction with corporate IT, it was no worse than anyone else as far as the board could determine.
The board wanted to create greater intimacy with its customers – in order to sell more profitable products and services – and at the same time reduce costs of serving the customer through a more efficient processes and a greater use of IT.

To achieve the desired outcome, the CxO responsible for customer services decided to undertake an IT enabled business change programme. The core IT system would be a new Customer Relationship Management application – or CRM system. The business already had several CRM systems but none of these appeared to be capable of meeting the needs of the board.
Although many such change programmes had been undertaken in the past, they had met with limited success, the board felt that this time it would be different. Lessons had been learnt. This time there was to be more rigorous definition of the business requirements and far tighter management of the programme. The business users were going to be included early and involved throughout. A big emphasis was going to be made on ‘Change Management’ – working with the users to manage the transition to the new business processes and the use of the new CRM system.
Confidence was boosted by the newly appointed CIO. The CIO had assured them that unlike the CRM systems presided over by her predecessor (albeit originally implemented by an earlier CIO), today’s ‘CRM packages’ were highly functional, easy to configure to meet the required business processes, and were easier to modify to meet changing business needs over time. Further, today’s CRM packages were great for using information from across the business – held in many of the current IT systems – which could help with both customer intimacy and process efficiency. The CIO also assured the board that unlike their experience of existing CRM systems the tail was not about to wag-the-dog – it was the business that would determine the new processes, not her IT function and not the CRM package.
The board was unhappy that the new IT system was going to take 18 months – they wanted it in 3 months – but they understood that this is how corporate IT worked and that there was no other realistic option.
The Programme commenced!
So, rather than continue our story from the point of view of a CRM solution (I’m not picking on CRM by the way – the story applies to lots of solutions across the value chain – and custom and package technologies) I’d like to switch to an analogy of an aircraft to help bring the story to life…
The board knew the desired outcomes it wanted from the aircraft – its range, fuel efficiency, and cost of operations being the most important. But there was so much choice on the market the procurement function needed additional information to help it procure the best aircraft at the best price.
At this point the users of the aircraft were involved. They pilots, passengers, cabin crew and maintenance staff all had their opinions on what the aircraft should do. A specification was created and bidders invited to tender. The new aircraft was selected 3 months later and arrived the following week.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t a completed aircraft. The type of aircraft the business had just bought was deliberately not usable straight away by the business – it was designed so that the business – or rather its engineering function – could ‘configure’ it. It was really more of a large plastic-model kit and a set of tools than a recognisable aircraft.
As the engineering work commenced, various tensions emerged between what the different types of users wanted. But ambiguities weren’t possible – the aircraft had to fly after all – so the engineers spent weeks and eventually months with the users to create a specification on paper that everyone was happy with and that they knew they could engineer. This aircraft was going to take a lot of engineering after all and the engineers began to focus, out of necessity, more and more on how they could build the aircraft just so that it could fly, not necessarily what the business wanted from it.
Eventually a specification was completed, signed-off and then construction work started.
Unfortunately, only several weeks into the construction, the business found that market conditions were changing. Speed of the aircraft was becoming really important. Could we engineer the aircraft so it went more quickly?
The engineers were up in arms. They had enough problems trying to fit the many different types of seats in the aircraft the passengers had asked for without the fundamental engineering problem of making it go faster.
Fortunately they had a bright idea. They could attach a third engine to one side of the aircraft. It would seriously impact fuel efficiency and make it harder to fly but it would do the job without having to re-engineer the entire aircraft. They wouldn’t have time to fit an engine to the other side but this could always be attached later.
The aircraft had its first test flight.
It flew ok but the cabin crew weren’t happy with how the galley area functioned. The pilots complained the aircraft seemed to veer to one side and the maintenance crew felt the third engine was really hard to support. Some passengers thought their seats were too small. Some didn’t like the colour of the trim. Over the weeks and months the problems, one by one, were ironed out. 2 years after the original procurement the aircraft went operational.
It had cost a lot more, taken a lot longer to deliver, and seemed to be a lot more complicated to maintain than originally envisaged but it flew ok.
Not long after the business faced a problem. They needed to get way more passengers into the aircraft.
“No way! It simply won’t fly!” cried the Engineers.
But then someone had a bright-idea: although this would require a major change, the the cabin could be increased in size 10 fold if the aircraft was turned into a ship!
The business had already spent so much money on the aircraft and it was only just now that everyone had got to grips with how to use it. The proposed solution seemed better than starting the whole process again and buying a new larger aircraft or buying a new ship from scratch. They were reluctant to spend yet more money but they agreed with the engineers’ solution – so long as the engineers guaranteed the thing would actually float.
Fortunately it did. It took 12 months of engineering effort but the new large fuselage had been made water tight – the 2,000 seat aircraft actually floated! The controls weren’t too different and while it looked odd to the outside world it seemed to do the job. The jet engines still worked and the engineers had even got round to fitting the fourth engine.
Then something unexpected happened. The seas were becoming very rough – too rough for the new aircraft ship to sail on.
But fortunately the engineers in the business were highly innovative. By this time they knew the aircraft-ship inside out – probably better than the original aircraft manufacturer. They believed that with 12 months engineering effort – removing the wings and replacing the jet engines with propellers – the aircraft-ship could actually be made to move under the water!
Again the business reluctantly agreed – seeing no better option. It waited 12 months for the converted submarine and did what it could to use it to get from A to B. Over time, however, the users began to innovate for themselves. They started to hire ready to use small aircraft, boats and divers kit to help folk get from A to B – they only used the corporate aircraft-ship-submarine when they really had to.
The fate of the vessel was sealed when the new CEO took his cat onboard. He got fed-up with carrying the cat up to the deck to get some fresh air every time they surfaced and demanded that the engineers solve this problem. The engineers, wanting to please the new CEO, focused intently on his problem and, using a tried-and-tested design pattern, decided upon a solution – the C-Flap Module was carefully crafted and installed.
When the salvage team pulled the vessel from the ocean floor they discovered the reason for its demise. They scratched their heads, sucked their teeth and wisely concluded the cause was the-all-too-common case of ‘a functional need too far’.
Shortly after the sinking of the good ship ‘CRM-1.99.9a’, the newly-hired CIO had an idea:
“You know, maybe we should buy a new aircraft? These days you can fit a lot more passengers in – they’re highly configurable, easy to change and cheap to run.”…

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